U.S. charges former air force officer with Iran-related espionage

The United States on Wednesday indicted a former U.S. air force officer Monica Witt for aiding Iran in what Washington characterized as a cyberspying operation targeting American intelligence officers.

Indictment claims Iran provided Monica Witt with resources, gained access to U.S. agent Facebook group

This 2012 photo released by the U.S. Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013. (Department of Justice via Associated Press)

The United States on Wednesday indicted former U.S. air force officer Monica Witt for aiding Iran in what Washington characterized as a cyberspying operation targeting American intelligence officers.

As part of its action, the United States sanctioned two Iran-based firms — New Horizon Organization and Net Peygard Samavat Company — and several individuals associated with the two groups.

U.S. officials said Witt supplied classified information about U.S. intelligence officers after defecting to Iran in 2013.

Witt faces two counts of delivering military information to a foreign government and one count of conspiracy.

The U.S. Treasury said Net Peygard targeted current and former U.S. government and military personnel with a malicious cyber campaign, and it said New Horizon had organized international conferences supporting efforts by Iran's Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force to recruit and collect intelligence from foreign attendees.

Also charged are four Iranians who allegedly worked on behalf of the Quds. Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Paryar are charged with computer intrusion and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors say they targeted at least eight former colleagues of Witt's in the intelligence community.

"It is a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country," said assistant attorney general John Demers, the head of the Justice Department's national security division.

Witt is still believed to be in Iran, which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

Enhanced security measures

Jay Tabb, the FBI's top national security official, said the bureau warned Witt before her defection there that she was a vulnerable target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence but that Witt had ignored those warnings.

According to an indictment unsealed on Wednesday, Witt served as a counterintelligence officer in the air force from 1997 until 2008 and worked as contractor for two years after that.

During that time, she was granted high-level security clearances, learned Farsi at a U.S. military language school, and was deployed overseas for counterintelligence missions in the Middle East.

Witt appears to have turned against the United States some time before February 2012, the indictment alleges, when she travelled to Iran to attend a New Horizon conference that featured anti-U.S. propaganda.

In February 2013, Witt returned to Iran for another New Horizon conference and told officials there that she wanted to emigrate, defecting in August of that year.

Provided with housing and computer equipment by the Iranian government, Witt tracked down U.S. counterintelligence agents she used to work with on Facebook, the indictment alleges, and disclosed the classified identity of at least one of those agents.

Iranian hackers then set up fake Facebook personas to befriend those agents and attempt to install spyware that would track their computer activity, the indictment says. The hackers managed to gain access to a Facebook group of U.S. government agents.

The air force has since adjusted its security measures, said Terry Phillips, a special agent in the air force's office of special investigations.

With files from Associated Press